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June 15, 2022
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Preventing "Wellness Fraud" for Leaders

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School Culture
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A few years ago, I was enrolled in a fellowship for leaders called the Rural School Leadership Academy. We took trips across the country to visit rural schools and identify specific leadership practices that supported the growth and development of students and staff in those settings. One of our first exercises was to walk up a mountain in New Mexico. Our group of 25 was given a one-word prompt to think about while walking: leadership. Here was the catch—you could not talk to anyone else on your way up.
As I traversed the winding mountain paths, I was skeptical about how exactly this exercise was supposed to help me with leadership. After what seemed like hours, I neared the top, and the trail grew steep and rocky. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I had hiked mountains before, but this one was out of my league. When I took the slow and steady path, another person passed me (like the time I was passed over for that job I really wanted, I thought). When I took a shortcut, I was afraid my foot would slip (like the many times I did not feel qualified for my job, I thought). I wanted to share these reflections with the people around me, but I had to be silent. Leadership is lonely sometimes.
School leaders may be feeling that loneliness acutely, especially now, as educator and student health challenges abound. The suicide rate for U.S. students ages 10 to 19 rose 40 percent from 2001 to 2019 prior to the global pandemic—which only exacerbated the problem (The New York Times, 2022). Teachers are burning out at higher rates than they were pre-pandemic; 55 percent reported in November of 2021 that they were thinking of quitting compared to 28 percent in July 2020 (Noonoo, 2022).
Schools are overwhelmed by all the factors influencing life right now: a global pandemic, racial divisions, a devastating war in Ukraine, political unrest, and much more. Leaders are often the ones responsible for encouraging everyone to take care of themselves and trying to solve these issues but running on empty in their own lives. They pour into hundreds of people. But who is pouring into them?

Watch Out for ‘Wellness Fraud’ 

Perceived wellness fraud is the nagging feeling that people will figure out we aren’t practicing what we preach. While you might not think of fraud applying to wellness, it absolutely does these days. There are many times when leaders may recommend wellness practices or institute wellness policies for staff or students while feeling frustrated that they can’t seem to find time for wellness and self-care themselves. One principal said to me, “They are going to know I am a fraud when I say to practice wellness, when I am not even sleeping.”
The pressure can leave leaders feeling like they should be taking their own advice—when the current education system often makes it impossible to do so. Through no fault of their own, even a leader simply asking a teacher whether they’re taking care of themselves can produce a strand of imposter thoughts and worries: I should talk. I haven’t eaten anything all day. I should learn to take my own advice
Promoting wellness in others while not being well ourselves can make us feel like imposters. I, too, have experienced bouts of insomnia, anxiety, and unhealthy eating habits. I notice these symptoms in others because it’s like looking in the mirror.

‘On the Mountain Alone’

I have been working at a semi-rural school, Jones Elementary School, as a coach for the last two years. The school launched several wellness initiatives to combat the increase in stress and anxiety. For example, the district added an advisory block in the morning so that students could settle in, eat their breakfast in the classroom, and check in with their teachers.
Every teacher has been trained on leading an effective morning meeting with students. There is a room for students to go if they are experiencing emotional challenges. Stickers across the ground in the hallways give students a chance to release some energy and jump like a kangaroo or walk like a spider to “get their wiggles out.” A redesigned teachers’ lounge and walking challenges have been created to give extra support for teachers.

Leaders often try to avoid showing weakness or vulnerability. However, this just isn’t realistic—nor is it healthy.

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But it seemed like the school had neglected to extend this support for wellness to leaders. When I sat down with the principal, Sarah, to discuss coaching, she had bags under her eyes and clutched a Diet Coke the size of a small child. During a pause in the conversation, I said, “I notice a lot of effort being put into the wellness of students and staff. Who is taking care of you?” The principal immediately broke into tears. She felt like she was on the mountain alone.

Tips for Leaders of Leaders

If leaders are experiencing feelings of wellness fraud, it’s important for them to know they are not alone. Leadership coaches, area superintendents, or curriculum directors are in positions to directly support leaders. Unpacking issues of wellness can be challenging with leaders, especially for those who feel like they need to traverse that mountain alone. Here are a few tips that I have collected from working with the leaders I coach. 

Look for Signs of ‘Wellness Fraud’

Pay attention in consistent interactions with leaders, such as team meetings, observations of their work, or one-on-one check-ins. Look for behavioral changes, such as:
  • Constantly distracted (i.e. phone, computer, etc.).
  • Reduced participation in team meetings.
  • Gets uncomfortable with compliments or praise.
  • Becomes defensive against pointed questions.
  • Shows decreased skill in things that they used to be good at.
  • Struggles to pre-plan.
These could be signs that the leader is not taking consistent care of themselves.

Probe, as Necessary and Appropriate

Leaders often try to avoid showing weakness or vulnerability. However, this just isn’t realistic—nor is it healthy. In a lot of cases, simply asking, “Are you okay?” won’t yield more honest answers. Try to keep the question open-ended to get more insights about how they are thinking and feeling. Not all people want to share their negative feelings with their boss or supervisor, so consider who and when these types of questions should be posed.
  • What’s keeping you up at night? What’s on your mind right now?
  • I am noticing from your face/body language that you seem tense. Tell me more about that.
  • How much are you sleeping or eating right now?
  • In what situations do you say something to someone else and think, “I should take my own advice”?
  • To what extent do you feel like an imposter when discussing issues of wellness?
I tried to bring a wellness focus to my coaching sessions as well, with questions like:
  • How are you managing your triggers?
  • What are you doing when you feel most anxious?
  • In what ways are you demonstrating healthy habits?
  • What is one thing that you can do for youself this week?
Whether you do something with these responses varies depending on the relationship. A simple, “Do you want to talk about it?” goes a long way because it allows the person to opt out if they don’t feel comfortable. In addition, you want to be invited to offer insights about how to move forward. You can start with, “Is it helpful if I share some ideas with you?” Key point: Avoid unsolicited advice.

Create a Space for Honesty

Leaders need allies they can talk to both in and outside the school community. Being transparent with colleagues or with other people who share the same position or role within a school requires trust. To build trust, here are some questions to help think about the nature of your relationship with others (Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999):
  • Honesty: Is this person honest? Always?
  • Benevolence: Does this person care about me as a human? Will this person talk smack?
  • Competence: Do I trust this person is good at/can do their job?
  • Openness: Does this person purposely withhold information?
  • Reliability: Can I count on this person to do what they say/tell others the same thing?
As an education nonprofit leader, I also meet with another education nonprofit leader in a different state every month. It’s important to be honest with colleagues, but sometimes, sensitive topics may require going outside of your immediate circle. We talk about fundraising, staffing, programs, and ultimately, and our own feelings of inadequacy. And I know he won’t judge me or tattle on me.

Praise, Praise, Praise

Those experiencing issues with wellness doubt themselves often and need accurate and actionable praise. No, I am not talking about the generic, “Good job.” For example, a leadership coach might say, “Last week, I noticed that you got your weekly instructional focus out on Monday at 10:00 a.m. This week, you got it out the Friday before the week. What specific actions or skills did you demonstrate to get this result?”
Then, build off of what the leader explains. Maybe they were in classrooms more often and had better insights as a result, which led to more clarity for teachers and the leadership team. This type of praise will help leaders to see that they are making progress in certain areas, even if they feel like they are spinning out of control in others.

Don’t Encourage the Shortcut

Go-getter types sometimes just charge ahead—they take the rockier shortcut on the mountain. Then they turn around and wonder where everyone else is. Coalition building and collaboration can help leaders feel like they are not alone.
Sarah, the leader I met with, was doing everything herself—decorating the hallways, setting up a walking challenge, meeting with staff. When probed, she said, “Everyone has a lot on their plates right now. I don’t want to put them over the edge.”
In a severe teacher shortage, leaders may feel like they cannot make demands of others if it is not immediately applicable to their job responsibilities. But not involving others in schoolwide efforts often leaves people feeling isolated or not part of a school community.
By overprotecting the team and their time, leaders can inadvertently make rash decisions in the spirit of “protection.”

A Way Forward

After my discussion with Sarah, I could tell that she felt relief. Finally, she could tell someone how she was really feeling. After that initial meeting, we met weekly, and I saw the size of the Diet Coke start to dwindle. Her face seemed less tense and more relaxed. I asked her what changed. She said, “I decided I couldn’t serve others if I wasn’t taking care of myself.” What every person needs may be different things: therapy, exercise, or reconnecting with family. Regardless, Sarah had found what worked for her. As drag queen RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?”
Education is hard. We are all working so hard to create positive, holistic experiences for students. Leaders pour everything in their work but often do not think about pouring into themselves. We all feel like a fraud at times. But what would you say to a student who was not well? Now say that to yourself. You got this.

Hoy, W. K., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (1999). Five faces of trust: An empirical confirmation in urban elementary schools. Journal of School Leadership, 9(3), 184–208.

Cuncic, A. (2022, May 23). What is imposter syndrome? Verywell Mind.

Noonoo, S. (2022, May 17). The mental health crisis causing teachers to quit. EdSurge.

Richtel, M. (2022, April 23). How to help teens struggling with mental health. New York Times.

Jo Lein is the founder of the Teaching & Leading Initiative of Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization that brings instructional coaching to under-resourced districts and trains leaders in areas of instructional leadership. She is currently an adjunct professor at York College (Nebraska) and Johns Hopkins University and a commissioner at Oklahoma’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA).

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